Chilled Western Australian lamb was loaded onto freight trains to Brisbane last week for a 4,000-kilometre rail journey to reach ships heading to North America.
- North America is Australia’s most lucrative lamb export market
- Chilled WA lamb was sent from Perth to Brisbane by train last week for shipping to North America
- Shipping from Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney currently faces heavy delays
The lamb comes from the WA Meat Marketing Cooperative (WAMMCO), a farmer-owned meat processor based in Katanning, at a time when the entire global transport industry is under significant stress.
“We’re not able to get the flights and the shipping services we need,” WAMMCO marketing manager Damien Giumelli said.
Since January, WAMMCO has been transporting chilled lamb to Sydney and Melbourne ports by rail because of a lack of suitable US-bound ships docking in WA.
“[But now] the vessels that would normally go out of Sydney and Melbourne are actually bypassing those ports to save some time. So the only option we have is to go to Brisbane,” Mr Giumelli said.
At least one more train journey from Perth to Brisbane has already been scheduled.
Chasing a premium market
North America is Australia’s largest lamb export market by volume and value.
Nonetheless, the added cost of a transcontinental rail journey is difficult to justify for exporters.
“But it’s not a sustainable situation. It’s just too much cost in the business.”
In June, lamb exports to the US exceeded $100 million for the first time.
The extended journey from WAMMCO’s Katanning abattoir to a North American customer is also putting pressure on the 80-day shelf life of chilled lamb.
“Not only have we got to get it across the country, but the shipping transit times have blown out,” Mr Giumelli said.
No port in a pandemic
WAMMCO has continued shipping frozen lamb products from Fremantle as they are not at risk of spoiling en-route to international markets.
“The reason we don’t have capacity out of Fremantle isn’t a lack of vessels,” Mr Giumelli said.
“Typically we pass [US-bound] vessels through Singapore, but [shipping companies] won’t give us space out of Singapore because vessels there are being diverted to the Asia-North America trade.”
Another major West Australian lamb processor, Fletcher’s International, has not resorted to railing its product cross-country but has transport issues of its own.
“Rescheduling is something we rarely used to do. Now we have to do it almost every day.”
It remains to be seen how long WAMMCO will need to rail its lamb cross-country but the global shipping supply shortage appears likely to continue.
“What needs to happen is more capacity needs to come into the industry,” Mr Giumelli said.
“But the timeline is expected to be 2-3 years before they come into service.
“We might be facing challenges for quite a while.”